The Federal Government’s Dark and Cloudy Crystal Ball
Those planning the next boom will have to weigh the potential economic benefits with the environmental impacts of the industry. Questions about air quality, water contamination, ground pollution, and the potential impacts of rapid urbanization of these otherwise rural areas will need to be answered before the next boom arrives, if it ever does.
Oil shale garners a lot of attention from environmentalists because the industry has yet to full mature. Environmentalists and conversationalists can fight proactively, rather than retroactively against oil shale development. In most other cases, like fracking with natural gas, environmental groups are fighting a process that is already in use where damage to the environment has already occurred. In September 2008, when the BLM finally released its long-awaited final Programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) on oil shale lands, a coalition of 13 environmental groups filed suit against the Department of the Interior over their plan to open nearly 2 million acres of Shale Country to commercial oil shale development.
Passed in the waning days of the Bush Administration, the 2008 final PEIS proposed 3 broadly different development scenarios for Shale Country. The first option, Alternative A, was to take no action and leave things as they stood in Shale Country; Alternative B proposed opening nearly two million acres in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming to commercial oil shale leasing; and Alternative C advanced a more restrictive leasing program that would make roughly 830,000 acres available for development.
The BLM identified Alternative B as their preferred choice and the Department of the Interior passed the final PEIS with Alternative B, thus opening nearly 2 million acres of land for commercial development. The coalition of environmental groups sued on the grounds that the Bush Administration failed to adequately consider the environmental impacts of the oil shale industry and that the royalty rate was set too low for fair returns (the PEIS set the royalty rate at an initial 5 percent through the first five years of commercial production and increasing 1 percent annually after that to a maximum rate of 12.5 percent). The BLM hoped that a low royalty rate would attract businesses into oil shale but 5 percent is much lower than other forms of energy (natural gas in Colorado is set at a rate of 12.5%).
The Department of the Interior ultimately settled with the environmental groups and decided to take a “fresh look” at the regulations. The new PEIS is expected to be released in the fall of 2012. This time the preferred alternative by the BLM calls for 830,000 acres of land, substantially less than the 2 million acres of land offered in the 2008 plan, to be opened for RD&D leases and no commercial leasing until the industry is capable of proving their technology economically and environmentally. This emphasis on research is meant to address many of the issues raised by the environmental groups and concerned citizens in Shale Country.
Under the old PEIS, the BLM had predicted that the full development of a commercial oil shale industry would supplant nearly all other uses of the land, including recreation, ranching, agriculture, and all other oil and gas development. This would mean the displacement of thousands of jobs that would not all be balanced out by the introduction of an oil shale industry.
Water remains a primary issue for the oil shale industry to address. The vast majority of Shale Country lies in a high-mountain desert region where water resources are already under stress from agriculture, increasing populations, and energy industries. Although developments in technology have lessened the demand for water in the actual process of extracting and refining oil from shale, the industry still requires an extensive amount of the precious resource known as the “lifeblood of the West.” Water quality is likely to be degraded under routing operating conditions and the risk of sever contamination of surface or ground water from spills, faulty procedures, and inadvertent pollution is ever present.
Wildlife will assuredly lose habitat wherever development occurs, and the trappings of development may increase the animals’ stress and alter their behavior patterns. Plants will lose habitat and are likely to face increased competition from nonnative invasive species. Fish will suffer from any drop in water quality or flow volumes throughout the region’s waterways.
Air quality is also liable to suffer due to emissions from oil shale operations and associated population growth, but the BLM cannot say to what degree until companies are able to provide more detail about their production processes.
The large and rapid population influx will urbanize the small rural communities around the shale fields as “substantial demographic and social change” makes itself felt. Traffic congestion will increase on roads never designed for such volume. Property values are likely to decline in places near operations, particularly for ranches. In periods of extreme growth, community social structures may break down under the strain, producing a whole host of negative results that raise the specter of Gillette Syndrome, including rising crime, increased domestic violence, higher rates of depression, substance abuse, and suicide.
The BLM’s assessment of socioeconomic impacts concludes that “communities hosting these developments are likely to be required to adapt to a different quality of life, with a transition away from a more traditional lifestyle involving ranching and taking place in small, isolated, close-knit, homogenous communities with a strong orientation toward personal and family relationships, toward a more urban lifestyle, with increasing cultural and ethnic diversity and increasing dependence on formal social relationships within the community.”1
It is a sobering assessment. What is a city government to do when confronted with the immense and complex impacts of full-scale commercial oil shale development? Which impacts should the communities of the Western Slope focus on mitigating if a new oil shale boom does come? What will these impacts mean for the energy companies trying to ensure that things are “done right”? No one can know the future, but even at this early stage it is clear that attention to certain social, economic, and environmental considerations might help moderate the trials associated with oil shale development.
Smart Growth Planning for a “Maybe Boom”
Although locals often refer to Black Sunday as “the Exxon bust,” the disaster tarred the entire industry and every operator in Shale Country today must continue to deal with the fallout. The next round of oil shale development will occur in the shadow of the past. Operators should be aware that their actions are being evaluated against and constantly compared to what happened before.
When Western Slopers discuss current prospects for development, it is almost always within an assumed context of boom and bust. Those who oppose renewed efforts to develop oil shale cite the earlier experience as a cautionary tale, while even those who support oil shale development, such as the leaders of Club 20 and the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, do so within a framework that lauds the deliberate pace of the RD&D program (often without mentioning the commercial leasing program) in contrast to the crisis-driven efforts of the 1970s.2
The sting of the 1982 bust is far from forgotten among residents who managed to stick it out, nor is the power of this experience lost on newcomers (a term that can follow a person around for a good portion of a lifetime in some Western Slope communities). The bust dogs discussions of current development projects. Very few people – with the striking exception of some boosters and people associated with the energy companies – talk about oil shale as a career-length or sustainable economic endeavor. Indeed, the presumption on the Western Slope seems to be that the current cycle of development will follow the traditional boom-bust route, and those local officials responsible for managing its impact seem focused on softening the ride.
Managing the human impact of the development cycle is not only the responsibility of local governments. As a matter of self-interest as much as corporate citizenship, the designers and managers of the next generation of oil shale operations will be wise to consider the social and economic consequences that their endeavors might carry for surrounding communities. The negative impacts of unmanaged boomtown growth have a clear adverse effect on energy operations, because a poor or deteriorating quality of life makes it difficult to retain an adequate and experienced workforce, and a substandard workforce equals less-than-optimum production. Furthermore, quality of life for energy workers is often colored by their employers’ relationship with the existing community, and oil shale companies still have a great deal of work to do in rehabilitating their relationships on the Western Slope.
These companies stand to benefit in many ways from efforts to conduct the RD&D process with strong community involvement and sensitivity to stakeholder concerns. Actions perceived by local residents as careless or hasty will call up the specter of Black Sunday and reinforce animosity, if not create outright opposition, among community members. As an influential 2005 report from the RAND Corporation puts it, mildly, “Given the past volatility and future uncertainties associated with oil shale development, as well as evolving views in the United States toward environmental protection, open-space preservation, energy policy, and stakeholder involvement in local decision making, an attempt to rush or shortcut development is likely to generate significant opposition at the local, state, and even national levels.”3
Boomtown Balancing Acts
Even with the best of corporate-community relationships and well-crafted mitigation strategies designed to reduce and cope with social stresses, resource booms can seem like a mixed blessing to the communities experiencing them. A quick look at the multifaceted impact of the recent boom – and, at the outset of 2009, the whispers of a bust – testifies to the challenges community leaders face as they work to balance the benefits and burdens of sudden prosperity.
As energy companies arrived in the area during the first part of the decade to work the oil and gas deposits, revenues, costs, and growth rates jumped in Garfield and Mesa counties in Colorado, where the boom is centered. Nearly every community in the two-county area grew by at least 6% between 2000 and 2006 (the most recent data available as we write), with regional center Grand Junction showing 11.7% growth (41,986 to 46,898) and the small town of New Castle posting the most prodigious growth rate at 66% (1984 to 3294). These communities have struggled to expand services at a rate that kept pace with growth.
Oil shale development is likely to increase that challenge for the city of Rifle and its Garfield County neighbors, which stand to absorb the lion’s share of impact from the in-migration of workers and their families. Meanwhile, most of the operations that brought them into the area will generate tax revenues across the county line in Rio Blanco County.
In Rifle, which grew from a population of 6784 in 2000 to 8446 in 2006, some studies have predicted that the town will top 20,000 residents by 2020. The growth is already beginning to take a toll: rising crime rates have stretched the police department thin, traffic-choked city streets laden with heavy trucks have prompted complaints from residents, and rapidly rising property values have made it difficult for middle class workers to live in the community.
As the median home price around Rifle skyrocketed from $191,000 in 2003 to over $297,000 in 2007, vital members of the town’s workforce have been increasingly forced to live down the valley as far away as Grand Junction and commute. In the summer of 2007, more than 20 prospective teachers turned down job offers because they could not afford the housing costs in town (average net monthly pay for a new teacher in the district ranged to about $2100, while an average 3-bedroom home commanded around $1200 a month).
“Unless you have a two-person income, you’re struggling to make ends meet here, and it’s driving our workforce out of the area,” exlained Mayor Keith Lambert. “Teachers, police, firemen, hospital employees . . . all are having to look elsewhere to live.” And the problem shows no sign of abating, despite the recent downturn in the nation’s housing market. According to county assessor John Gorman, average home values throughout Garfield County declined only a little by the end of 2008.
Reeves Brown, the Executive Director of Club 20, neatly summed up the conundrum these communities find themselves facing: “One person’s high-paying energy job is another person’s housing shortage.” And housing isn’t the only commodity that has been in short supply in Garfield County. Due to the demand from energy operations, gravel costs skyrocketed in recent years, multiplying the cost of numerous construction and road-building projects and raising the distasteful prospect of importing gravel from Utah. County officials have been forced to anticipate the energy boom’s impact on every aspect of the local economy, literally down to the smallest pebble, when planning their coping strategies.
The story has been similar in Mesa County, where home prices increased 52% from $129,000 in 2003 to $196,000 in 2007 before dipping slightly in 2008. For officials at Colorado Mesa University, students rather than teachers have been the concern, as male high school graduates have increasingly chosen oil and gas jobs with salaries that can hit $80,000 rather than pursue higher education. Community leaders worry about the long-term effect of an undereducated population, yet business owners have appreciated the impact these high wages have had on the local economy. Over the course of the boom, restaurants in Grand Junction and other Western Slope communities have grown accustomed to pouring double shots of top shelf liquors to help diners wash down their premium-cut steaks. And before spiking gas prices and the national recession put a damper on truck sales, auto dealerships in Grand Junction had trouble keeping enough pickup trucks on the lot.4
Although the oil and gas boom insulated Western Slope communities against much of the worst of the recent national economic downturn, by the beginning of 2009 there were signs that the recession may be overtaking the industry – and the people who have come to rely on it. In the energy fields, although active wells continued to pump and construction went forward on a gas processing plant in Rio Blanco County, companies began to scale back plans for new wells and idled a significant number of the drill rigs they had been operating in the area. In town, even as construction proceeded on four new hotels in Rifle, homebuilding throughout the area slowed, and houses that once rented the same day they were listed began to sit on the market for weeks. At stores along these towns’ Main Streets, lines began to form for job openings that had previously gone unfilled, and area employers such as Wal-Mart in Rifle were able to staff all available positions for the first time in years, even as some considered cutting positions to reduce payroll expenses.
As this slump has taken hold, industry officials have begun to talk of “operating lean.” Community leaders like Rifle Mayor Keith Lambert have noted a “slowdown” but point out that town populations are still growing and the current situation is much different from the abrupt crash of Black Sunday. Nonetheless, a few roughnecks and area residents have begun to openly talk of a “bust.”5
The Dark Side of the Boom
The problems posed by housing shortages, overstretched city services, and declining education rates trouble Western Slope communities negotiating the recent energy boom, but perhaps the issue that raises fears of Gillette Syndrome most ominously is the growing prevalence of substance abuse. In today’s energy boomtowns, the drug of choice is methamphetamine.
The prospect of a meth boom paralleling the energy boom is a particularly sobering thought for Western Slope community leaders already struggling to cope with a mounting epidemic. Methamphetamine is a highly addictive central nervous stimulant that can be made from inexpensive household items and over-the-counter products. It produces a euphoric sensation while increasing energy and decreasing the user’s appetite. However, it can lead quickly to increased feelings of depression, and long-term meth use can cause heart problems, dental decay, significant and permanent changes in brain function, paranoia, hallucinations, delusions and other symptoms of psychosis, violent behavior, and, in some cases, death.
In addition, the process of making meth creates an explosive and highly toxic environment, putting everyone in proximity of the meth lab (including police and first responders) at risk whether or not they use the drug. Meth use ripples through the entire community, increasing the burden on healthcare providers, social services, foster care, police, the legal system, and prisons.
On the Western Slope, energy development is linked to a subculture of meth use that exacerbates these existing problems. Despite increased drug testing by companies in recent years, “you’re either wired or you’re fired” is a common saying among workers spending long days on the drill rigs, according to one well-traveled roughneck.
Reliable numbers that directly measure the causative relationship between energy development and meth use are difficult to come by, but it is hard to ignore the correlation between the timing of the oil and gas boom and the upsurge in meth use. According to a 2007 study, criminal cases involving meth in Mesa County increased by more than 40% between 1999 and 2007. The peak came in 2006, when meth was a factor in 89.3% of cases before the county’s courts.
Western Slope communities are fighting back. In 2005, Mesa County established a meth task force to stem the growing crisis. To help heal the social fabric torn by meth abuse, the county opened a $5 million treatment center for addicts in June 2007. And in November 2007, the county district attorney’s office created a position for a full-time prosecutor to step up the legal battle against meth.
These aggressive countermeasures appear to be paying dividends. During the 2008 fiscal year, meth was a factor in only 69% of the county’s court cases.6
How to Plan for a “Maybe Boom”
The recent oil and gas boom coincides geographically with the prospective oil shale revival. In social and local economic terms, any future oil shale boom will, to some degree, look similar to the bonanza of the past few years. Operators looking ahead to oil shale will do well to study the examples now before them.
But if the recent oil and gas boom is a case study, it is one that will help shape the scenario it is meant to predict. Decisions and actions taken by oil and gas companies over the past few years are affecting the people and environment of the Western Slope in ways that will influence a future oil shale industry.
How that influence is felt will depend in large measure on the timing of the decline of the oil and gas boom and the upsurge in future oil shale development. If the current slowdown in oil and gas activity stretches into a full-fledged bust, how long will the Western Slope idle in economic doldrums before oil shale comes on line? Or will oil and gas production rebound and continue long enough for the two booms to pile on top of one another, stretching already strained communities to new levels? Or, ideally, might they dovetail sequentially, allowing impacted communities to continue using the expanded infrastructure and services already in place, as oil shale workers arrive to take advantage of housing, infrastructure, and services created for oil and gas workers? This finely calibrated (and somewhat improbable) transition would postpone the economic contraction brought by the end of energy development and make the job of community planners much easier.
With so many unanswered questions still surrounding oil shale production, communities looking ahead to the coming “maybe boom” face the difficult task of simultaneously planning for both a shortage and an overabundance of municipal infrastructure, affordable housing, and even willing school bus drivers and other service providers. Officials at the city and county level expect the development of a commercial-scale oil shale industry, if it happens, to overlap with the current oil and gas economy, but no one is sure by how long, to what degree, or exactly how to plan for it.
What does seem clear is that the ways in which companies address and manage socioeconomic issues related to oil shale development will in large part determine how or whether the industry succeeds. “If we’re not able to address the socioeconomic issues,” one presenter told his audience at the 2007 Oil Shale Symposium at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, “even if we have the economics and the technology to develop oil shale, we’re not going to be allowed to develop oil shale.”7
New Ways to Count Coup
There are no more unloved places in the American West, and all proposed sites for pits or well pads and their support infrastructure are likely to provoke spirited debate about the consequences they carry for the people, wildlife, plant life, and landscapes of the Piceance Basin.
Surface mining and retorting methods generate daunting and distasteful environmental challenges. The disposal of processed shale rock, in particular, presents problems for the reclamation of surface mines. Once the fuel has been removed, the crushed rock has expanded in volume, resists revegetation, and poses a threat to groundwater through toxic leaching. Some studies have shown that revegetation and reclamation may be possible on land disturbed by oil shale development but it may be a number of years before plant growth returns.8 In situ extraction promises to be much less disruptive to the land surface than traditional surface or underground mining, although little is known about the prospects or challenges of reclaiming an in situ site.
Either method of oil shale extraction will require a significant buildup of infrastructure and the long-term withdrawal of lease sites from current uses. In addition to well pads, in situ operations will need support infrastructure such as roads, pipelines, processing facilities, water storage and supply facilities, power supply and transmission systems, hazardous materials handling facilities, construction staging areas, man camps, and the other trappings of energy development.
Furthermore, some in situ processes currently in development may require dramatically more power than traditional mining operations in order to heat the shale underground over time, and no one is sure yet how many power plants such operations might need, where they might be located, or whether they will be coal-fired or rely on alternatives such as solar or wind power (both potentially viable options on the Western Slope, raising the tantalizing possibility that the companies could work at developing two new energy sources at once). Finally, after tabulating all of the effort and energy required to extract oil from the rock, no one is certain what the net energy gain will be.
Coming Into Crowded Country
Whatever facilities are required, they will be shoehorned into in already well-occupied country. Wild horses, mountain lions, and black bears roam the landscape overlying the oil shale deposits, which currently hosts a variety of human uses as well, including hiking, hunting, fishing, sheep and cattle grazing, and oil and gas drilling. The region is home to large herds of elk, mule deer, and pronghorn antelope that draw 28,000 hunters annually, along with increasing numbers of outdoor recreation enthusiasts armed only with cameras. The Piceance Basin contains a diverse ecosystem that encompasses a variety of distinct habitats and provides a home to a wide assortment of plant and animal species, including several that are at risk and protected to varying degrees:
- Bald eagle (bird, threatened)
- Sage grouse (bird, candidate for listing)
- Colorado pikeminnow (fish, endangered)
- Boreal toad (amphibian, candidate for listing)
- Dudley Bluffs bladderpod and twinpod (plants, threatened)
- Parachute beardtongue (also called Parachute penstemon, plant, threatened)
Overall, the various federal and state agencies charged with managing the ecological health of Shale Country list 210 species as sensitive, threatened, endangered, or otherwise protected by the federal and state governments. The plant species are particularly at risk from oil shale development because much of their habitat is found on what the BLM has categorized as “geologically prospective” land. The Dudley Bluffs twinpod, for instance, is a small perennial named for its heart-shaped fruits that grows in only a dozen places in the world, and all of them sit above oil shale deposits in Rio Blanco County. In August of 2012 the Department of the Interior designated 50,635 acres in and around Shale Country for the protection of three plants, including the Parachute beardtongue and the Debeque phacelia.9
Land Wars: Ecosystems Under Siege
As operators move into the remote expanses of the Piceance, they will be traversing through Pinon-Juniper Woodlands and Sagebrush Steppe, two distinct ecosystems found in Shale Country. The Pinon-Juniper Woodlands may provide a home for more bird species than any other habitat on the Colorado Plateau, but scientists know little about the impact of human activity on this ecosystem. The Sagebrush Steppe, on the other hand, we know to be an ecosystem in trouble. An arid landscape of crusty earth, dotted by shrubby big sage plants and native perennial bunchgrasses, which stretches across eye-straining expanses of western scenery, Sagebrush Steppe is the dominant lowland plant community in the Intermountain West.
Once nearly ubiquitous throughout the Great Basin, the sagebrush ecosystem is now threatened by the spread of an exotic annual species called cheatgrass. Cheatgrass grows quickly in sagebrush country and provides fuel for fires that burn with more frequency and greater intensity than in the past. Unaccostomed to fire, sagebrush plants are killed completely by it and can take centuries to reestablish, clearing the way for more cheatgrass and the repetition of the cycle across more and more acreage. As a result, millions of acres of former sagebrush country are now virtual monocultures of cheatgrass, and thus a very poor habitat for native species.10
Cheatgrass is not the only destructive invasive species threatening Shale Country. Tamarisk trees (also known as saltcedar) line waterways and drink more than their share. Oxeye daisies virtually pave over once-diverse meadows. Poisonous black henbane waits for unwitting victims. Russian olive, leafy spurge, yellow starthistle, and a host of other wonderfully named but terribly destructive noxious weeds are encroaching on native habitats throughout Shale Country. (For a full overview of the invasive plants threatening Shale Country ecosystems, check the state noxious weed lists for Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming.) Once these invasive plants have been introduced into an ecosystem, long-term biocontrol measures, including the uncomfortable prospect of introducing of other nonnative competitors, are often the only strategy for effectively controlling them.
But natural species are pretty good competitors when given a fair chance, and a healthy native plant community left undisturbed can usually hold its own against intruders. Invasive species usually require help to gain a successful foothold, and humans (and their livestock) are often their unwitting assistants. Every time indigenous ecosystems are disrupted – every time a road is built or a development goes in or a pasture is overgrazed – it creates a chink in the natural armor, a vulnerable place that can be assailed by nonnatives, and the problem grows. “Build a road and weeds are sure to follow,” Colorado State Weed Coordinator Kelly Uhing once said, “unless you have a good plan to prevent that from happening.”11
Even with good plans in place to limit impacts, oil shale operations will encroach on the habitat of a number of native species and expand the human/wildlife zone of conflict both directly and indirectly. Equipment brought from other sites may carry with it destructive nonnative species like cheatgrass. Roads and foot trails will break up the fragile microbiotic crust, the thick organic layer of “desert pavement” that stabilizes and increases the fertility of the soil in this sparse and windswept landscape, creating vulnerable places for invasive species to establish themselves. Well pads and facilities will displace the dwindling sagebrush.
Habitat loss and the creation of larger production sites and corridors will disrupt wildlife migration patterns. The noise from compressors may inhibit the reproductive success of birds nesting in nearby pinon and juniper trees. The man camps set up to house workers near operations in an effort to reduce the stress on area communities and roads may become magnets for black bears hoping to score an easy meal – a dangerous situation for humans and often a fatal one for bears, which must be killed if they persist.
Indirectly, as leasing closes off portions of the public lands, the increased population brought to the area by development will intensify the use of those lands that remain open. Energy companies and BLM managers will need to carefully consider the impact (and legal ramifications) that even minimal destruction of habitat might have and develop a coordinated strategy to manage and minimize impacts on plants and wildlife.
Balancing Bulls With Booms
So what are we to do? Should we assign an economic value to plants, fish, and all of the other members of an ecosystem, measure their worth against our need for oil, and live with the consequences of choosing either environmental preservation or energy development?
Quantifying the value of preserving a certain species or a specific place is, at best, an imprecise enterprise and, at worst, downright quixotic. In contrast, calculating the monetary worth of a commodity like the oil that might be extracted from the Piceance Basin is a comparatively straightforward undertaking. Furthermore, it can be difficult to articulate what benefit protecting a species like the Colorado pikeminnow or the Parachute beardtongue imparts to people on the Western Slope, much less those in Boston or Bogota or Beijing. But it takes only the turn of a car key to appreciate the benefits of plentiful oil.
In the past, when American society has debated the inherent value of preserving an intact and undisturbed environment in contrast to the measurable value of developing natural resources, the benefits of development have traditionally triumphed. Fortunately, energy development in Shale Country does not necessarily present us with this type of either/or framework (though the tenor of contemporary political and environmental debates may suggest otherwise).
Groups like the Nature Conservancy believe that there is a way to have our cake and eat it too – or to have our Dudley Bluffs twinpod and the gas to drive out and see it too – if development proceeds with deliberation and a commitment to balancing the value of developing resources against the significant inherent values these ecosystems possess in their undisturbed state. Allowing that our modern standard of living requires the development of some natural resources, these pragmatic environmental advocates work to identify and protect crucial areas that will permanently ensure the area’s biodiversity without putting every acre off limits.12
The Nature Conservancy is part of a diverse and often disconnected collection of groups and individuals concerned about the environmental impact of oil shale development. In Shale Country, the opposition to energy development cannot simply be written off as agitation by overwrought or elitist armchair environmentalists. The Western Slope’s, Utah’s, and Wyoming’s breathtaking scenery and magnificent wildlife attract tourism that amounts to a significant economic driver for local communities – greater in the long term than energy development, by some estimates. The concerns of the tourist industry are reconfiguring traditional opponents and allies in ways that complicate stereotypical notions of what it means to be an environmentalist. Predictable liberal environmental constituencies have been joined by hunters, ranchers, and other close-to-the-land conservatives on the Western Slope (a reliable conservative stronghold since the waning years of the New Deal) to urge cautious and limited energy development.
At the center of these strange but increasingly compatible bedfellows are the outfitters who guide backcountry hunting and packing trips. Like others who earn their living from the land, outfitters often feel the environmental impacts of development through direct economic consequences. The greatest impact comes from roads punched through previously roadless areas, with their rumbling traffic and fringe of nonnative species, which carve artificial boundaries through habitats and displace wildlife. “Roads destroy everything” was the blunt assessment offered by Kurt Schultz of the Colorado Outfitters Association.
The outfitters, like many others who share concerns about oil shale, do not expect to prevent energy development altogether, and they accept that some roads will have to be built and some areas may be unusable for a while. They want to be involved in a discussion with the energy companies over how to proceed in a responsible way that acknowledges and seeks to balance the range of values found between the poles of unhindered development and absolute preservation.
The incentive to strike this balance in the picturesque country of the Western Slope has grown in recent years as guides have discovered a new and growing source of income in nature tourism. For the modern outfitter, counting coup on the screen of a client’s digital camera can be more lucrative than traditional trophy hunting. “A lot of our outfitters are finding that there’s more money in watching wildlife than shooting it,” Mr. Shultz explained. “You can take one hunter out to shoot a bull, and then that bull is gone. Or you can take 10 people out to see that bull and take pictures, and then 10 more people out the next day to see that same bull, and soon you’re saying ‘Don’t shoot that bull!'”13
As the value of such experiences increases, so too does the likelihood of conflict over well pads, roads, and the other aspects of energy development’s footprint on the land. It takes only a few small steps to go from “don’t shoot that bull!” to “don’t put a road through that bull’s range!” to “don’t put a rig in the background of my photo of that bull!”
In areas of energy development, a picture is liable to provoke a thousand words of protest and acrimonious debate. The visual impact created by energy development can stir up great environmental controversies without even mentioning ecological or economic concerns. Simply put, many people – both tourists and residents – do not like to see the machinery of energy development where they expect wide-open Western spaces, and they will fight to protect the scenic integrity that many take to be a key aspect of quality of life.14
Lifeblood of the West
Westerners have long observed that the region is short on water. The Colorado River Compact of 1922 made the traditional lament a mathematical truth by apportioning the river between upper and lower basins based on data from some of the wettest years ever recorded.
Using flow rates from 1905 onward, the negotiators of the Colorado River Compact calculated the average flow of the river to be 16.4 million acre feet and agreed to split 15 million acre feet evenly between the upper and lower basin, divided at Lee Ferry at the head of the Grand Canyon, 10 miles from the Utah border in northern Arizona. The upper basin states of Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, and New Mexico agreed to deliver at least 75 million acre feet to Lee Ferry during every 10-year period. This formula (as opposed to requiring 7.5 million feet every year) leaves some wiggle room for the upper basin to adjust how much it delivers year to year in accordance with the river’s flow, but it ultimately gives the lower basin states of Arizona, Nevada, and California a priority claim to their full share.
However, in the years since the agreement was reached, the river’s flow has fluctuated widely, and often it has not met the levels assumed by the compact’s architects. In December 2007, prompted by a tenacious drought that has kept river flows low since 2000, the compact states collaborated with the Bureau of Reclamation in the Department of Interior to agree upon new guidelines to follow in such times of shortage. The new supplementary agreement helps water managers plan drought strategies with greater certainty by specifying the order and timing in which states will take reductions of their water supply. It also creates provisions for increasing coordination and conservation throughout the system, essential aspects of effective water management as population and demands upon the system continue to grow throughout this arid region.15
A Potential Dealbreaker
Today, more than ever before, a variety of competing industrial, municipal, agricultural, tribal, and environmental interests in 7 states as well as Mexico battle over every acre foot of water in the Colorado River system. Farmers and ranchers, recreational anglers and whitewater rafters, and residents of major metropolitan areas, not to mention endangered fish species and the other members of the region’s intricate ecosystem, rely on adequate flows and water quality in the Colorado and its tributaries. Water is a potential dealbreaker for any extraction process that requires too much or poses too great a risk of groundwater contamination.
Historically, problems from the overestimation of the river’s annual average flow have been postponed, because the upper basin states have used much less than their share. But this is changing as growing numbers of coastal Americans relocate to the Rocky Mountains and to the desert Southwest, especially to swelling cities like Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Denver, and Salt Lake. These booming population centers are now laying claim to their share of the river, considerably reducing the margin of surplus in the system that Southern California had been soaking up. In fact, in 2003 Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton ordered California to relinquish 800,000 acre-feet it had grown accustomed to using because the water rightfully belonged to the upper basin states.16
At the outset, water for an oil shale industry will likely come out of local sources such as the White River, which runs along the northern edge of the Piceance Basin and into the heart of the Uintah Basin. Operators may also tap the Colorado River running to the south of both basins, and Shell had eyed the Yampa River to the north as another source but has since relinquished that project. Companies have obtained water most often by purchasing senior water rights from established users. They might also claim unallotted water in the system (if they can find some, as Shell did in the Yampa’s spring runoff flows), or theoretically they might bring water to the area from outside the Colorado River Basin (a tricky engineering and legal maneuver that Exxon briefly proposed during the previous boom).
Companies in Shale Country maintain large claims to water rights on the Western Slope. Of the companies involved with oil shale, ExxonMobile owns the most water rights due to the company’s long involvement in Shale Country. Chevron maintains large claims as well, but the company recently abandoned oil shale for other interests and their rights will eventually be sold. Shell has been actively purchasing and making claims in recent years and looks to continue to expand. According to a report from Western Resource Advocates (WRA), an environmental law center that conducted a survey of water rights in Shale Country, 6 energy companies have filed for a total of 7.2 million acre-feet of water rights on the Colorado and White Rivers. The amount equals nearly the entire Upper Basin allotment under the 1922 Colorado River Compact, although it is not credible to suggest that all of these rights would be developed at the same time.
Shell disputes some of the WRA report’s methodology and conclusions about how much water has been claimed for oil shale, but the company does not deny that a future oil shale industry will require significant amounts of water. Shell contends that maintaining a broad water rights portfolio is the best way to provide the flexibility needed to avoid impinging on other users, but users with junior rights – including many cities along Colorado’s populous Front Range that rely on water drawn from the other side of the Continental Divide – are nervous that large scale oil development will make it more difficult to attain the water they count on.17
No one is yet sure how much water a commercial-scale industry using a next-generation in situ process will require, but the engineers and scientists working on it are confident that they can do a good bit better than their predecessors. The traditional mining and retort methods planned and tested in the last boom require tremendous quantities of water for dust control, scrubbing off-gasses, hydrogenation, evaporative cooling, disposal, cooling and compaction of spent shale, revegetation of spent shale, and other uses in the production process. Estimates made during the previous boom range between roughly 2 and 5 barrels of water for each barrel of oil produced from shale. In situ recovery methods promise to consume less water because the disposal, cooling, compaction, and revegetation of spent shale would be unnecessary (although other stages of an in situ process might need considerable volumes). The best current estimates for in situ water requirements are between 1 and 3 barrels of water for each barrel of oil (with some companies like AMSO and Chevron promising to use even less), but it will not be clear exactly how much water they will need until operations are ready to be scaled up to larger operating dimensions.18
The new generation of in situ processes that energy companies are studying and testing in Shale Country today – ambitious technologies that significantly reduce the amount of water required to produce a barrel of oil, and even allow Chevron to envision being what it calls a net producer of water – have to be more economical with water than their predecessors because they are being designed under greater constrictions.19 Water demand is rising with population throughout the Colorado River system, leaving a smaller and smaller portion available for new industries. The manifold impacts of increased water usage for an oil shale industry near the headwaters will ripple downstream through the entire basin, reducing hydroelectric power generation, sharpening the effects of drought, requiring more water storage facilities, and impairing the already fragile fisheries. Prized species such as the Colorado River cutthroat trout and endangered fish such as the humpback chub, bonytail, Colorado pikeminnow and razorback sucker stand to lose substantial portions of their habitats and populations from reduced instream flows.20
How Much Is Left?
Complicating any predictions about water in the Colorado River basin is the latest global warming forecast, which calls for earlier and faster snowmelts and even drier summers throughout the West in the coming century. The specter of climate change combined with booming population growth throughout the basin introduces myriad uncertainties into discussions of how much water will be available for industry and other users in the future.
Under such indeterminate conditions, planning is a tricky proposition at best. Some studies suggest that, with the addition of more reservoir storage on the system, the Colorado River system contains enough water to support the region’s population growth and an oil shale industry in coming decades. In its Final PEIS, the BLM concluded that there was water still available in the Colorado River system to support oil shale development in the three Upper Basin states that constitute Shale Country. Some advocates specifically point to the 800,000 acre-feet of water relinquished by California as enough to supply the industry. Other equally confident analyses predict severe shortfalls that may dry up key reservoirs such Lake Mead and Lake Powell in a little over a decade, leaving the parched region unable to support even current inhabitants, much less a growing populace or new water-intensive industries.
In Colorado, no less an authority than Eric Kuhn, the General Manager for the Colorado River Conservation District, cannot be more precise than this: “Colorado has either a lot of water to develop – upwards of another million acre-feet – or Colorado may already be at or above full development of its Colorado River supplies at certain periods.” And the situation changes from year to year as river flows rise and fall, leading the BLM to note that just because water is available under the allocation formula of the Colorado River Compact, “this calculation does not imply that the water is readily or physically available.”Simply having the water rights may not be enough for companies to exercise them because of the large amount of public opposition that such proposals would garnish. Seeking to put a number on just how little might be left, Eric Kuhn has suggested that the river may have only 150,000 acre-feet left to reliably give in Colorado, far below the figure of 1.5 million acre-feet commonly cited by state officials.21
In addition to intensifying questions about the finite quantity of water available in the basin, oil shale operations – both traditional mining and surface retorting methods and, to a lesser extent, in situ methods – pose a number of challenges to water quality. Depending on the extraction process and technology, oil shale production may produce quantities of saline water large enough to impair the quality of local surface water. Retorting produces water with high levels of pH capable of dissolving and thereby introducing into the environment toxic metals such as arsenic and selenium. Carbonate salts are also a common byproduct of oil shale retorting processes, but their environmental impact may be minimal if left in the ground and isolated from ground water systems.22 However, these threats depend upon – and vary in response to – local geographic and hydrologic conditions and the exact extraction processes used. And, as we mentioned earlier, every in situ method currently in development seeks to minimize threats to groundwater, albeit through some very divergent methods.
The number and degree of challenges to water quality presented by new in situ processes are still largely in the speculative realm. A number of key questions around water await answers as the RD&D process begins. How much water will production require? Is it available? In the heavily appropriated Colorado River system, who (if anyone) loses water if industry gains it? Can creating freeze walls or controlled fracture zones control groundwater contamination and maintain water quality? And in such a thirsty region, what should operators do with the water pumped out of the extraction zone (a problem that has confounded operators in other energy fields)?
Answers to these questions are, according to operators, still a number of years away. The old commercial leasing program outlined in the 2005 Energy Policy Act that rushed the leasing process has been scrapped by policymakers for a more research based approach that allows for these questions to be answered before commercial operations begin. Efforts by concerned citizens and informed policy makers are insuring that water issues will be addressed in Shale Country before any full-scale operations begin.23
Success on the Horizon
The air over Shale Country is largely clear and free of pollution, features that have earned it protection under the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD) provisions of the Clean Air Act. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal agency charged with overseeing air quality throughout the nation, enforces strict limits on air pollution throughout the region. These constraints – particularly those driven by a recent ruling that extends the EPA’s authority to regulate greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, as well as the potential for forthcoming federal legislation that caps greenhouse gas emissions – are poised to have a significant impact on the siting and permitting of oil shale operations.
What’s Blowing in the Wind
Most parts of Shale Country are designated Class II under the Clean Air Act’s PSD provisions, meaning that the federal government will allow only moderate increases in ambient air pollution over the region. However, interspersed with the potential shale lease sites are a number of places that have near-pristine air and special value as wilderness, national monuments, national parks, and other protected areas. These Class I areas are held to even stricter air pollution standards, and their proximity to potential lease sites promises to drastically limit acceptable emission levels upwind.
The BLM has cataloged 10 places designated Class I by the federal or state government within 50 miles of prospective shale deposits:
- Flat Tops Wilderness Area in White River National Forest (Colorado)
- Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness Area in White River National Forest (Colorado)
- Colorado National Monument (Colorado)
- Dinosaur National Monument (Colorado/Utah)
- Arches National Park (Utah)
- Bryce Canyon National Park (Utah)
- Canyonlands National Park (Utah)
- Capitol Reef National Park (Utah)
- Bridger Wilderness Area in Bridger-Teton National Forest (Wyoming)
- Fitzpatrick Wilderness Area in Bridger-Teton National Forest (Wyoming)
Clearly, with high standards for air quality in Shale Country and so many protected national treasures potentially downwind, federal clean air regulations will play a significant role in permitting or siting oil shale operations.
Although the regulation of air quality falls under the jurisdiction of the EPA, the BLM is certain to take it into account when reviewing oil shale lease applications, and the proximity of these Class I areas may help determine the conditions imposed by the BLM on commercial leases. Such conditions might include requiring companies to use existing Best Available Control Technologies (BACT), or the agency may dictate technological improvements to clear air safeguards before approving a company’s plan of operations. Although BACT is considered a lower standard because it utilizes available technology as opposed requiring the invention of new technology, either condition may be viewed as onerous by oil shale operators.24
Something in the Air
Whether the federal government calls the air they breathe Class I, Class II, or something else, many residents of Shale Country view pure air as a major part of their quality of life. Meanwhile, some people who currently live near oil and gas development sites perceive ill health effects from airborne pollution generated by those operations. Although not as clear cut as the pollution regulations of the Clean Air Act, this negative perception (and possible fact) of the health costs associated with energy development may become an equally large problem facing the oil shale industry. To appreciate the importance of perceived public health risks in our energy policy, one needs only to stop and consider when the last nuclear plant was built in the United States.25
The requirements of the Clean Air Act are more data-oriented and straightforward than reckoning with people’s perceptions, but no recent data is publicly available to assess the air quality impact of modern oil shale extraction methods. However, the oil shale industry viewed the Clean Air Act as a constraining factor during the previous boom, and the law seems poised to play that role again unless operators can find ways to reduce expected emissions.
One of the key questions surrounding the development of viable twenty-first-century oil shale operations is how regulators can protect air quality without unduly limiting the growth of a commercial industry. Indeed, whether a commercial-scale industry of a few million barrels a day is even possible under the Clean Air Act remains an open question. Already air quality concerns have delayed gas drilling in the Vermillion Basin near Dinosaur National Monument so that the EPA can conduct further study. And under the federal PSD system, which allows for only so many increments of pollution total in an area, the first operations to go online (or even operations from the current conventional oil and gas boom), especially if they are allowed to apply the lower standard of BACT, could use up the pollution quota and shut latecomers out of development opportunities entirely.26
Using Energy to Make Energy
Air quality impacts from the development of an oil shale industry will not be limited to the extraction site or the nearby vicinity. The potential for increased power demands, particularly with in situ operations, raises concerns about pollution from the construction of new power plants. The way in which operators generate the energy for heating the shale underground will have a significant impact on the amount of pollution generated by the operation.
Based on the process proposed by Shell, which uses electricity to provide the down-hole heat, the RAND analysis estimates that an operation producing 100,000 barrels a day would require 1200 megawatts. From this estimate, Western Resource Advocates (WRA) and an associated coalition of environmental organizations further infer that such an operation would require a power plant “as big as any in Colorado history, large enough to serve a city of 500,000 people” that would cost roughly $3 billion to build and consume 5 million tons of coal (assuming it is coal fired) while emitting 10 million tons of greenhouse gasses annually. A commercial-scale industry of a million barrels a day would require 10 of these plants and, again according to WRA, 5 new coal mines.27
The potential for substantial greenhouse gas emissions from the otherwise “lighter touch” in situ method may prove to be a dealbreaker under stringent clean air regulations, all the more so as concern about global warming gains credence with the American public. The EPA’s April 2009 decision to regulate climate-changing greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide under the Clean Air Act, if it is upheld by the courts, is likely to up the ante on companies looking for ways to reduce the overall carbon intensity of their oil shale operations.
Companies planning on the electric heating of the underground shale are aware of this potential pitfall and are searching for low-carbon solutions. Shell is working to develop more efficient heaters that will maximize their energy returned on energy invested (a measure the industry refers to as EROIE). AMSO believes that heating the rock more quickly than Shell plans to – 3 to 12 months as opposed to several years – will offer an increased level of energy efficiency. Companies such as Chevron are looking for methods that do not depend on electricity and will leave only the faintest of carbon footprints.
The most direct way for these companies to reduce the carbon intensity of oil shale may be to harness lower-carbon sources other than coal to power their operations. Natural gas presents an attractive alternative in this respect because it requires less water and emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, and recent advances in extraction techniques have allowed energy companies to dramatically increase their estimates of recoverable gas reserves in Shale Country and worldwide. (This bounty is a double-edged sword, however, as abundant natural gas reserves may relieve some of the pressure to develop new fossil fuel sources like oil shale.)
While natural-gas-fired power plants would present a lower-carbon alternative than traditional coal-fired power plants, a few Shale Country operators such as Shell have publicly mused about the possibility of pursuing even cleaner energy sources to provide at least part of the power needed for their in situ processes. The Western Slope boasts prodigious wind, solar, and geothermal resources waiting to be tapped. Could turning the oil shale fields into a laboratory for renewable energy technologies as well as new oil production processes be the way forward under the limitations of the Clean Air Act?
1 BLM, Final PEIS, quote on page 4-156. The document’s second chapter discusses the alternatives considered by the BLM. The entire fourth chapter of the PEIS deals with the wide range of possible impacts from oil shale development discussed in the preceding paragraphs.
2 See, for example, the opposition positions represented on the Western Colorado Congress’s background information page and position paper on oil shale, as well as Randy Udall and Steve Andrews, “The Illusive Bonanza: Oil Shale in Colorado – Pulling the Sword from the Stone” (Aspen, CO: Community Office for Resource Efficiency, date unspecified) (PDF). For supportive statements, see Jim Evans, Executive Director of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, “A Local Government Perspective on Federal Oil Shale Research and Development Efforts,” testimony before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Washington, DC, 12 April 2005 and Club 20, “Oil Shale, Development and Implementation of a National Strategy,” resolution 05-4 EN 02, adopted 1 April 2005 and amended 30 March and 8 September 2006.
3 Gulliford, Boomtown Blues, 92; Bartis, Oil Shale Development in the United States, 43.
4 Examples and quotes about the impact of the current oil and gas boom were compiled from: Andy Vuong, “Western Slope Finds an Economic Oasis,” Denver Post, 29 June 2008; Mike Saccone, “Mesa, neighboring counties experience population surge,” Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, 22 July 2007; Burt Hubbard, “State coping with fallout created by oil-gas boom,” Rocky Mountain News (Denver), 25 July 2007; Judith Kohler, “Ridin’ the boom in Rifle,” Casper Star Tribune, 2 September 2007; Leslie Robinson, “Rifle Booms Under Record Housing Starts, Construction Projects,” Colorado Independent, 29 April 2008; Mike Saccone, “Rifle’s rapid growth, high demand push out ‘middle class’ workers,” Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, 22 July 2007 (includes Mayor Lambert quote); John Gorman, “Property Values Soar from 2006 to 2008,” Glenwood Springs Post Independent, 21 April 2009; Steve Raabe, “Grand Junction becomes boom town,” Denver Post, 9 June 2007; Anna Maria Basquez, “Median Sale Price on GJ Homes Takes Tumble,” Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, 29 Oct. 2008; Christy Hamrick, “Impacts of an Oil Shale Boom on Local School Districts,” presentation at 27th Oil Shale Symposium, Colorado School of Mines, Golden, CO, 16 October 2007; Jesse Smith, Assistant Garfield County Manager, spoke of the rising cost of gravel during his presentation at the Center of the American West’s Chevron Oil Shale Workshop, Glenwood Springs, CO, 23 October 2007; Reeves Brown, presentation at the Center of the American West’s Chevron Oil Shale Workshop, Glenwood Springs, CO, 23 October 2007.
5 At the beginning of 2009, a spate of articles reporting cutbacks in drilling operations appeared in Colorado newspapers. See, for example: Nancy Lofholm, “W. Slope Oil and Gas Tent Folds,” Denver Post, 3 February 2009; Gary Harmon and Dennis Webb, “Williams Revises Drilling Cutbacks,” Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, 19 February 2009.
6 National Institute on Drug Abuse, Methamphetamine Abuse and Addiction; Patrick Farrell, “Meth Fuels the West’s Oil and Gas Boom,” High Country News, 3 October 2005; Meth-Free Mesa County (Mesa County Meth Task Force); Steve Raabe, “Grand Junction becomes boom town,” Denver Post, 9 June 2007; LeRoy Standish, “DA’s office to hire meth prosecutor, statistician,” Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, 30 October 2007; Amy Hamilton, “Few Felony Cases Filed in Mesa County,” Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, 31 December 2008. The ingredients in meth include ephedrine or pseudoephedrine (a common decongestant found in cold tablets) in combination with iodine crystals, battery acid, red phosphorous, and anhydrous ammonia. It can be formulated as a liquid, a powder, a waxy solid (glass), or a clear rock (ice).
7 In a panel discussion at the Center of the American West’s Chevron Oil Shale Workshop in Glenwood Springs, CO, on 23 October 2007, Mayor of Rifle Keith Lambert and Assistant Garfield County Supervisor Jesse Smith expressed their belief that, if the estimated timeline of 2030-35 for a commercial-scale oil shale industry is correct, it will overlap with current oil and gas activities. David Olsen commented on the importance of socioeconomic issues to the developing industry in his presentation on “Summary Oil Shale Environmental Issues and Research Needs” at the 27th Oil Shale
8 Jack Clark, “Reclamation and revegetation of lands disturbed by oil shale development in Colorado” (presentation, 29th Oil Shale Symposium, School of Mines, Golden, CO, October 21, 2009.) Mr. Clark looked at data initiated during the Exxon Mobile boom in the late 1970’s by Colorado State University researchers. He is overall optimistic that growth is possible on reclaimed lands but in the arid West it may take decades for regrowth to occur.
10 We are indebted to Carl and Jane Bock of the University of Colorado for presenting much of the information in this report about the potential ecological impacts of oil shale development in the Piceance Basin at the Center of the American West’s Chevron Oil Shale Workshop in Glenwood Springs, CO, on 22 October 2007. They also suggest the following sources for a fuller treatment of the issues than there was room to give in this overview. For a general overview of ecosystems of the region: P.L. Fradkin, Sagebrush Country: Land and the American West (New York: Knopf, 1989); M.L. Floyd, D. Hanna, W.H. Romme, and M. Colyer, eds., Ancient Pinon-Juniper Woodlands: A Natural History of Mesa Verde Country (Niwot, CO: University of Colorado Press, 2003); C.A. Beidleman, Partners in Flight Land Conservation Plan for Colorado (Estes Park, CO: Colorado Partners in Flight, 2000), available at www.blm.gov/wildlife/plan/pl-co-10.pdf. On the vulnerability of these ecosystems compared to those of the Great Plains: R.N. Mack and J.M. Thompson, “Evolution in Steppe with Few Large, Hooved Mammals,” American Naturalist 119, no. 6 (1982): 757-73. On microbiotic crusts: J. Blenap, “The World at Your Feet: Desert Biological Soil Crusts,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 1, no. 4 (2003): 181-9; R.D. Evans and J.R. Joansen, “Microbiotic Crusts and Ecosystem Processes,” Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 18, no. 2 (1999): 183-225. On the Sagebrush Steppe, the Cheatgrass fire cycle, and likely impacts on plants and wildlife: W.L. Baker, “Fire and Restoration of Sagebrush Ecosystems,” Wildlife Society Bulletin 34, no. 1 (2006): 177-85; S.T. Knick, D.S. Dobkin, J.T. Rotenberry, et al., “Teetering on the Edge or Too Late? Conservation and Research Issues for Avifauna of Sagebrush Habitats,” Condor 105, no. 4 (2003): 611-34; L.J. Sperry, J. Belnap, and R.D. Evans, “Bromus tectorum Invasion Alters Nitrogen Dynamics in an Undisturbed Arid Grassland Ecosystem,” Ecology 87, no. 3 (2006): 603-15; J.C. Chambers, B.A. Roundy, R.R. Blank, et al., “What Makes Great Basin Sagebrush Ecosystems Invasible by Bromus tectorum?” Ecological Monographs 77, no. 1 (2007): 117-45; L.H. Ziska, J.B. Reeves, and B. Blank, “The Impact of Recent Increases in Atmospheric CO2 on Biomass Production and Vegetative Retention of Cheatgrass: Implications for Fire Disturbance,” Global Change Biology 11, no. 8 (2007): 1325-32; C.L. Aldridge and M.S. Boyce, “Linking Occurrence and Fitness to Persistence: Habitat-Based Approach for Endangered Greater Sage Grouse,” Ecological Applications 17, no. 2 (2007): 508-26; J.A. Crawford, R.A. Olson, N.E. West, et al., “Synthesis Paper – Ecology and Management of Sage Grouse and Sage Grouse Habitat,” Journal of Range Management 57, no. 1 (2004): 2-19; W.M. Vander Haegen, “Fragmentation by Agriculture Influences Reproductive Success of Birds in a Shrubsteppe Landscape,” Ecological Applications 17, no. 3 (2007): 934-47. On Pinon-Juniper Woodlands and its bird populations: A. Clements, “An Ecosystem Approach to Combat Desertification on the Colorado Plateau,” Environmental Monitoring and Assessment 99 (2004): 233-43; C.D. Francis, C.P. Ortega, and J. Hansen, “Nest Site Selection and Success of Three Common Pinon-Juniper Birds in Response to Chronic Industrial Noise Disturbance” (abstract), Annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union, Laramie, WY, August 2007; D.C. Pavlacky and S.H. Anderson, “Comparative Habitat Use in a Juniper Woodland Bird Community,” Western North American Naturalist 64 (2004): 376-84; ; D.C. Pavlacky and S.H. Anderson, “Habitat Preferences of Pinon-Juniper Specialists Near the Limit of the Geographic Range,” Condor 103, no. 2: 322-31.
11 Dan Bean, Director of Biological Pest Control and Manager of the Palisade Insectary for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, and Kelly Uhing, the State Weed Coordinator for the Colorado Department of Agriculture, presented their views on biocontrol methods for invasive species and noxious weeds – many of which we have gratefully incorporated into the text – at the Center of the American West’s Chevron Oil Shale Workshop, Glenwood Springs, CO, 23 October 2007. More information about noxious weeds in Garfield and Rio Blanco Counties can be found at the Colorado Department of Agriculture. Noxious weed is a legal term for an invasive nonnative species that must be controlled by state law.
12 We are grateful to Tim Sullivan of the Nature Conservancy of Colorado for discussing the Nature Conservancy’s “Conservation by Design” approach at the Center of the American West’s Chevron Oil Shale Workshop in Glenwood Springs, CO, 23 October 2007. Our understanding of the nature of balance was confirmed in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 10th edition (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster Inc, 1996).
13 These comments come from Kurt Schultz’s presentation to the Center of the American West’s Chevron Oil Shale Workshop, Glenwood Springs, CO, 23 October 2007. We are grateful that Mr. Schultz made the cold ride out from his mountain camp to join us. For more examples of the tension between energy development and tourism on the Western Slope, see Mark Jaffe, “Energy, Tourism Vie Over Western Slope,” Denver Post, 18 Aug. 2008.
15 Norris Hundley Jr., “The West Against Itself: The Colorado River – An Institutional History,” in New Courses for the Colorado, ed. Gary Weatherford and F. Lee Brown (University of New Mexico Press, 1996), 9-49; Robert H. Webb, Gregory J. McCabe, Richard Hereford, and Christopher Wilkowske, “Climatic Fluctuations, Drought, and Flow of the Colorado River,” US Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2004-3062; US Department of Interior, Record of Decision: Colorado River Guidelines for Lower Basin Shortages and the Coordinated Operations of Lake Powell and Lake Mead (Dec. 2007) (PDF). Although Lees Ferry is commonly cited in discussions about the “law of the river,” as the Colorado River Compact and subsequent agreements are often called, the compact specifically denotes Lee Ferry as the point of division. They are actually two different places a mile apart on the Colorado River. Lee Ferry is the point of the hydrologic divide, while Lees Ferry, a mile upstream, is where the US Geological Survey maintains a stream gage (which could not be installed at the actual divide for logistical reasons). Between these two points, the Paria River enters the Colorado, and its flow is added to that measured at Lees Ferry to calculate the upper basin’s total water delivery. Both places are named for controversial pioneer ferry operator John D. Lee, who homesteaded along the river after being excommunicated from the Mormon Church and exiled by Brigham Young for his alleged role in the 1857 massacre of a wagon train of 120 non-Mormons at Mountain Meadows in Southern Utah. Lee was executed in 1877, but his wife Emma continued to run the operation until the Mormon Church bought it from her in 1879, sending another church member to run Lees Ferry. (See Western Water Assessment [a joint venture between the University of Colorado and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration], “The Compact and Lees Ferry”; National Park Service, “Glen Canyon National Recreation Area: Lees Ferry History.” )
17 Joe Hanel, “Big Oil casts shadow over Colorado’s water future,” Durango Herald, 6 January 2008; Gary Harmon, “Shell Seeks Yampa River Water for Oil-Shale Plans,” Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, 6 January 2009; Mark Jaffe, “Shell Eyes Yampa River,” Denver Post, 7 January 2009; Jerd Smith, “Shell Stakes Claim on Yampa River,” Rocky Mountain News, 8 January 2009; Lawrence J. MacDonnel, Water on the Rocks: Oil Shale Water Rights in Colorado (Boulder, CO: Western Resource Advocates, 2009); Mark Jaffe, “Oil Shale Plans Create Ripple,” Denver Post, 19 March 2009. Chevron, Shell, and other companies in Shale Country acquired many of their water rights during previous booms and have maintained them to the present. Most of the rights date to the 1950s and ’60s and are conditional, as opposed to absolute, meaning that they preserve the holder’s seniority under the law of prior appropriation but cannot be utilized until a state water court decrees them available for use. Holders of these conditional rights must undergo a diligence test in court every 6 years in court to demonstrate that they still intend to use the water. See also US Department of Energy, Office of Petroleum Resources, “Fact Sheet: Oil Shale Water Resources” (PDF).
18 We are grateful to Cathy J. Wilson of Los Alamos National Laboratory for sharing her thoughts about the water requirements of energy development and to Robert Lestz, the Oil Shale Technology Manager at Chevron, for providing an overview of the in situ process his team is developing at the Center of the American West’s Chevron Oil Shale Workshop, Glenwood Springs, CO, 23 October 2007. See also Cathy J. Wilson and Jean Foster, “Estimating Water Resource Demands and Availability for Oil Shale Development,” presented at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting, 31 Oct. 2007; Western Resource Advocates, Scoping Comments (PDF), 19-26; BLM, Final PEIS, 4-33.
19 We are greatful to Robert Lestz of Chevron for explaining his company’s ambition to become a “net producer” of water at the Center of the American West’s Chevron Oil Shale Workshop, Glenwood Springs, CO, 23 October 2007. The claim is based on the idea that more water will be produced by pumping it out of a targeted underground shale zone than will be required for Chevron’s production process.
20 Western Resource Advocates, Scoping Comments (PDF), 19-26. Western Resource Advocates cites a BLM study that the surface disturbance, reduced flows, and long-term aquifer disruption created by energy development would result in a loss of up to 35% of the total population of Colorado River cutthroat. However, in 2007 the US Fish and Wildlife Service found that traditional oil and gas development posed little threat to the Colorado River cutthroat and that population numbers were healthy, leading the agency to decline listing the trout as an endangered species.
21 Gregg Garfin and Melanie Lenart, “Climate Change Effects on Southwest Water Resources,” Southwest Hydrology 6, no. 1 (January/Feburary 2007): 16-7, 34; Martin Hoerling and Jon Eischeid, “Past Peak Water in the Southwest,”Southwest Hydrology 6, no. 1 (January/Feburary 2007): 18-9, 35; Bobby Magill, “Water at risk from climate change,” Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, 23 August 2007; Steve Lipsher, “Strain on Colorado water predicted,” Denver Post, 23 August 2007; Wilson, “Estimating Water Resource Demands and Availability for Oil Shale Development” (presentation); BLM, Final PEIS, 4-41, 6-93; Tim Barnett and Eric Pierce, “When Will Lake Mead Go Dry?” Water Resources Journal (29 March 2008), (free abstract); Eric Kuhn, “Certainty in Uncertain Times: Policy Implications of the Colorado River Compact”; Eric Kuhn, “The Colorado River’s Uncertain Future: How Climate Change May Affect Future Planning Decisions on the Colorado River,” (PDF); Eric Kuhn, The Colorado River: The Quest for Certainty on a Diminishing River (Roundtable edition, 8 May 2007), 109 (PDF); Matt Jenkins, “How Low Will It Go?” High Country News 41, no. 4 (2 March 2009). It is notable that the BLM dialed down the level of certainty it expressed about how much water is available for oil shale between the publication of the Draft PEIS and the Final PEIS. In the Final PEIS, the BLM cited Cathy Wilson’s work and offered the conclusion that “Water requirements to support oil shale development are still unknown, but it is known that general water availability has become more constrained, and not merely from a legal appropriation standpoint. There is the likelihood that present senior water rights would be purchased to either support development and/or obtain water in a specific location” (6-121). Compare that statement to this passage in the Draft PEIS: “Water requirements to support oil shale development are still unknown, but it is known that general water availability has become more constrained, and not merely from a legal appropriation standpoint. However, there is water available in the Colorado River system in the 3 basin states that could be used to support oil shale development. Additionally, there is the likelihood that present senior water rights would be purchased to either support development and/or obtain water in a specific location” (emphasis added, 6-93).
22 Natural deep groundwater in the Piceance Basin is saline, as demonstrated by S.G. Robson and G.J. Saulnier Jr., Hydrogeochemistry and simulated solute transport, Piceance Basin, northwestern Colorado, U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 0F 80-72 (1980). Spent oil shale retort also leaches dissolved solids, primarily sodium carbonate (J.L Freerer, A.G. Miller, W.F. Ramirez, “X-ray photoelectric spectroscopy determination of a conceptual leaching model of retorted oil shale,” Environmental Science and Technology 20, no. 7 : 695-702), dissolved organic carbon (J. Leenheer and H.A. Stubner, “Migration through soil of organic solutes in an oil shale process water,” Environmental Science and Technology 15, no. 12 : 1467-75), sulfate (K.G. Stollenwerk, “Geochemistry of leachate from retorted and unretorted Colorado oil shale,” ([doctoral dissertation, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1980]), and molybdenum and fluoride (K.G. Stollenwerk and D.D. Runnells, “Leachabiltiy of arsenic, selenium, molybdenum, boron, and fluoride from retorted oil shale,” proceedings of the Pacific Area Engineering Conference [Denver, CO] 2, no 2 : 1023-30).
23 Bartis, Oil Shale Development in the United States, 40-2; Western Resource Advocates, Scoping Comments (PDF), 26-31; “What’s the rush on oil shale?” (editorial), Denver Post, 17 May 2007; Kim McGuire, “No one is neutral in a water fight,” “Uncharted waters for Wellington,” “Battle looms over water quality” (3-part series), Denver Post, 12-14 August 2007.
25 Nancy Lofholm, “Oil and gas well-ness checkup,” Denver Post, 6 May 2007.
26 Bartis, Oil Shale Development in the United States, 21, 38-40; Western Resource Advocates, Scoping Comments (PDF), 31-4; Steve Lipsher, “Drilling Plan for Vermillion Basin Delayed,” Denver Post, 24 August 2007.